April 27, 2020
Pittsburgh jazz is resilient. It survived the demolition of the famous clubs of the Lower Hill District and the demise of the Crawford Grill. Its latest challenge is the threat of COVID-19, which has temporarily closed venues that allowed the city’s professional musicians to thrive and earn an income. While sheltering in place, six members of Pittsburgh’s jazz community explore new and creative ways to practice their artistry and pay the bills.
Photography Nate Guidry
Reporting & Videography Steve Mellon
Aspinwall is mostly silent these days. So are Pittsburgh’s North Side and South Side neighborhoods. Shadyside is quiet. And it’s not just the sound of traffic that’s missing. Music is gone, too. Clubs and restaurants are closed so there are no live performances, and that’s a problem for people such as percussionist and composer George Heid III, who depend on gigs to pay the bills.
“I was very busy before this COVID-19 pandemic broke out,” he said. “I was working six nights a week, then I was up Sunday morning at church playing drums. That all disappeared. Musicians were the first to go from the restaurants, and the church is now doing a livestream with just the pastor.
“I went from everything to nothing pretty quickly. Thank God I had a couple of acorns stored away. But it’s definitely been rough on myself and others in the community that I know.”
Mr. Heid, 29, graduated from Pittsburgh’s Creative and Performing Arts magnet school, where he was mentored by iconic jazz drummer Roger Humphries. He has studied jazz at Duquesne University and with drummer Kenny Washington at State University of New York at Purchase, and has recorded with musicians such as Mr. Humphries, Sean Jones and Warren Wolf. Touring has taken Mr. Heid across the United States and around the world — in fact, he has played several monthslong gigs in Hangzhou, China.
Mr. Heid and his father, George Heid II, live in a building that once was home to the Aspinwall Women’s Club. It’s a red brick colonial structure built in 1926 and for years it was a place of tea parties, concerts and gala events. A musician and recording engineer, George II purchased the building years ago and converted a portion of the space to a recording studio.
That’s where George III is spending his days, working on a project he’s calling “Wisdom Path.” He recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to support the work.
“I was getting inspired to work on this project when the pandemic hit, so I’ve been very busy grinding away," he said. “The main inspiration has been my travels around the world. Music has taken me to countries like China and Egypt, and all throughout Europe. I wanted to make a project that brought all of those voices from around the world together.
“There’s another inspiration for the project — a masterful percussionist named Steve Shehan, who I grew up listening to. I had the pleasure of meeting him in France in 2018, and I played a track for him, a track meant to sound like something he would create. To my delight, he loved it and he collaborated with me on it. That was the birth of the project. I have 10 tracks almost complete now, and I hope to turn the project into an album pretty soon.”
A few blocks from Chantal Joseph’s Shadyside home, people line up on the sidewalks outside restaurants that were packed several weeks ago. Everyone is keeping a proper distance so the lines often extend for a block or more. Otherwise, Highland Avenue is eerily still.
That stillness and the closures caused by COVID-19 are an unexpected speed bump for Chantal Joseph. The 32-year-old vocalist moved to Pittsburgh from Cape Cod, Mass., two years ago and quickly found a place in the city’s jazz and R&B communities. Then came a pandemic and the shuttering of venues that provided her with an income and a place to express herself artistically.
“I have to stay positive,” she said after more than a month of lockdown. “There’s such a sense of uncertainty and angst permeating the air. We kind of just have to wait and see what the next step is. And we have to figure out different ways to make it.
“I’m utilizing social media more than I was in the past. I’m recording and uploading videos of me singing. I wasn’t doing as much of that before because I was performing. I thrive when I have the energy of the audience. I love that and feed off of it, which is probably why I wasn’t doing so many videos.”
Ms. Joseph’s work as a teaching artist has dried up, so she has lost that income as well as the income she derived from performing. She has received a few requests to sing for special events like anniversaries, and she fulfills those requests by recording videos.
Even after the threat of COVID-19 has passed, she said, technology will continue to play an important role in the lives and careers of musicians.
“Heaven knows when we will all be able to congregate the way we used to,” she said. “We’re going to have to really engage with our audience and fans via social media, our websites, YouTube. They’re going to be more important.”
Still, for Ms. Joseph, recorded videos won’t replace live performances for most musicians.
“This makes us realize how blessed and lucky we are to be able to perform and express our art to the masses. I cherished it before, but I’ll cherish it a lot more now that this has happened.”
On a chilly April evening that had earlier threatened rain, Paul Thompson carried an upright bass to the front yard of his Green Tree home and thumped out a heartbeat for a community grounded by COVID-19. He played until his fingers grew numb. Then the sun bore a hole through thick clouds and everything seemed a bit warmer, if only by a few degrees. A neighbor came out of her home and waved.
Things are looking up for Mr. Thompson. It wasn’t always this way.
“It was really hard the first week,” Mr. Thompson said of the COVID-19 lockdown. “I got really depressed. I ate a lot of food, drank a lot of alcohol, stayed in my pajamas, like a lot of people. I was going over scenarios in my head, wondering when things would get back to normal. Then my wife [actress Chris Laitta] said to me, ‘Let’s do a podcast.’ That was the start of it. That got everything rolling.”
Now he and Ms. Laitta are quite busy with their podcast “CP Time,” morning yoga routines, and professional projects.
“I determined I was going to use this time to get better, so whenever we come out of this lockdown, everything I’ve dreamed about will be happening — doing an album, launching my YouTube channel. The week after quarantine started I began posting videos every day on YouTube. I’m up to 25 now and I’m going to start doing some teaching videos. And I’m going to do an album by myself. We have a little studio in the basement ”
Mr. Thompson, 46, has played professionally for more than two decades. He has recorded and toured with some of the greats, including trumpeter Maynard Ferguson and saxophonist Stanley Turrentine. Both he and Ms. Laitta are taking a financial hit because of canceled performances, but their situation isn’t as dire as it is for some artists.
“I teach at CAPA [Creative and Performing Arts magnet school] and Duquesne and West Virginia University, so I have streams of income that other musicians don’t have. I’m doing private lessons one-on-one, through Zoom or Skype or FaceTime. It’s fun. Some kids are really into it, we can really go deep. For some kids, the attention span is a challenge. They’re getting used to it. It’s new. I still feel like we’re getting quality one-on-one time.”
The early evening walkers on Fisk Street in Lawrenceville heard the deep, resonant beat of Ernest McCarty’s bass and stopped in their tracks. Birds chirped, a slight breeze rustled early spring flowers and Ernest McCarty, who toured the world with one of the greatest musicians our country has produced, swayed while playing on the front porch of his modest home. Such is life in the age of COVID-19.
When he stopped, two women on the corner applauded. Mr. McCarty, 79, let out a deep breath and thanked them. It felt good to have an audience.
For some musicians, being confined to a home is “a torturous thing,” Mr. McCarty said. “I mean, being alone and being lonely are two different things. When you're alone, it’s often a choice that a person makes. But to feel lonely, it’s because the outside source that you need to fill a gap is no longer there.”
For musicians, that gap is the inability to perform before audiences.
“Musicians now have no place to be,” he said. ‘It’s hard. You can’t just practice and practice. I mean, when I'm playing in my house, I don’t play like that. A performing artist’s refuge is on the stage. Nothing can replace that. It’s like an athlete. If they’re not on the field or on the court — nothing in life can take the place of that, right? So without that, people will have a tendency to become depressed. Their self-worth starts diminishing.
“During this time, we will get to know a lot about each [other] and about ourselves, right? Whether you like yourself or not. Can you stay home with yourself?”
Mr. McCarty is writing a musical while confined to his home. Sometimes he reflects on his years with Erroll Garner, the world-renowned jazz pianist and composer from Homewood. Mr. McCarty played in Garner’s band from 1970-77.
“I’m glad I appreciated it while it was going on,” Mr. McCarty said. ‘I always wanted to tour. I’ve been everywhere but Antarctica, you know. I'm over in Venezuela, getting off the plane with Erroll and the group and they’ve got machine guns on us. I thought that was exciting. I always read about things like that. Down in Chile, when Pinochet was there, we couldn't go into the country because there was a coup going on.
“I mean, this is real-life stuff going on here that a kid from South Chicago is experiencing. So when I look back on that time, it makes me feel better about being quarantined. I can look back and think about it when I'm writing. I can think about the influences musically that Erroll had on me.”
The dreary mood of a cold, wet April evening melted away when saxophonist Calvin Stemley stepped onto the porch of his Wilkins home and played a few bars of “My One and Only Love.”
Mr. Stemley, 66, wore a jacket adorned with several patches celebrating Grambling State University, where he earned his undergraduate degree. He came to the University of Pittsburgh in 1976 to pursue graduate studies and has been a fixture in the city’s jazz scene since.
He has felt the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown — “I had about 37, 38 gigs canceled,” he said — but his situation is somewhat different than that of many musicians.
“I was blessed to have a career as a band director at Westinghouse High School for 20-some years, so I do have a pension, Social Security and those types of things. I'm not as stressed as some of my musician friends (who are financially dependent on gigs). I am concerned about them, and their well-being. I'm happy to see that they're going to be included in some type of government assistance.
“We all know that when people go out for entertainment, a lot of times they’re not going for the food or the drinks, they’re going for the entertainment. Entertainment helps to boost the numbers of the establishment. So musicians should be included in getting assistance.”
While stuck at home, Mr. Stemley is spending more time reading and completing projects on his “honey-do” list and practicing. “I’m strategically planning my next CD project, which will be a lot of my own original material. But I do miss gracing the stage and I do miss my audience and I do miss playing because that’s what musicians do.”
“It's kind of a ministry to go out and play and make people happy. Say someone had a bad day and maybe they plan on going out and doing something reckless and you play and uplift their spirits ... I'm anxious to get back to uplifting people's spirits.”
Richie Cole spends his days surrounded by friends and neighbors in an old school that has been converted to a retirement home in Carnegie. On a cool night in mid-April, he made his way down to a small lawn near the home’s entrance, stuck a small American flag in the bell of his saxophone and played a jazzy version of “America the Beautiful.”
Fellow residents hanging out near the home’s entrance gathered around and applauded the performance. Mr. Cole, 72, touched his beret in acknowledgment of the praise. One man offered him a can of beer and a cigarette. It’s not the same as the professional gigs Mr. Cole was scheduled to play this spring, but it left everyone smiling.
Since starting his career with the Buddy Rich Big Band in 1969, Mr. Cole has performed with a number of jazz legends. Now he’s mostly confined to a one-room apartment. He’s making the best of it.
“I’ve got two TVs, a piano, a bed, a kitchen, and a bathroom,” he said. “I’ve got Christmas lights everywhere. I feel like I'm living in Pee Wee's Playhouse. I talk to my stuffed animals all night and they talk back. We have good conversations. ‘So, what do you think you think? Am I slipping or what?’
“ I watch my plants grow. I live in a jungle up there. Plants are growing everywhere. Another sad story, right? What’s Richie Cole doing these days? He’s sitting around watching his plants grow. It's true. And I love it.”
Mr. Cole’s lifetime of music involves stints with the Lionel Hampton Big Band and the Doc Severinsen Big Band. For years he toured the world with his own quintet, popularizing a bebop style he calls “Alto Madness.” He has performed and recorded with some of the greats, including Eddie Jefferson, the Manhattan Transfer, Tom Waits, Boots Randolph and Nancy Wilson. He once gave a command performance for the Queen of England. Everything now is on hold.
“We're all kind of dead in the water,” he said. “I don't have it as bad as people who’ve lost their jobs and have kids at home. But this is a busy time of the year coming up. I was supposed to be in Albuquerque, Las Vegas, I was supposed to do the “Charlie Parker with strings” concert with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra. Next week, I was supposed to be in Portland. I had a bunch of good gigs coming up. Anyway, I understand the situation and we just have to go along with it.”
He stays creative by writing music and sketching. Sometimes he takes his saxophone to Friday night bingo and plays a few tunes. “Danny Boy” is a crowd favorite.
“You know what my prediction is?” he said. “Whenever this blows over, it’s going to be like the roaring 20s. People can’t wait to go out to bars and restaurants. We’ll go hang out with each other, give everybody a hug. ‘Hey, how are you doing, man? We're back! Let's go listen to Richie Cole plays jazz. Yeah, man, that's a great idea. Let's go hear the symphony. Let’s go down to the Benedum Center and listen to Hamilton.’ We just have to all hang in there.”
Photography Nate Guidry
Reporting & Videography Steve Mellon